How to get snake people to speak in class

[Cross-posted from CELT Blog]

Why is it so hard to generate the kind of class discussion where everyone contributes, and everyone learns, with a minimum of cajoling, policing, and teeth-pulling by the instructor? More to the point, why was it so hard for me to generate discussion in the second week of my social ethics class this semester?

I asked questions. Nothing. I had students think-pair-share. They thought, they paired, but when it came time to speak to the whole group? Nothing. I don’t like cold-calling, because I didn’t like being cold-called. What was I supposed to do? I want to promote active learning, but I don’t want to spend several hours of the week in the only life I have to live in awkward silence in a room of quiet students.

On Twitter recently, the writer and academic Freddie deBoer admitted a similar concern:

The quick-n-easy answer is to blame the snake people — I mean, millennials — themselves. (There’s a Google Chrome browser extension that automatically, and hilariously, converts any instance of the word “millennials” on a webpage to “snake people.”) Kids and their gizmos! They’re so self-centered! They have only ever lived in a post-9/11 world!

Snake people
Snake people: They don’t eat cereal, but they vote! The horror!

That sort of hand-wringing bothered me when I was in college and commentators fretted about Generation X. So even if it’s true that kids today really are more reticent to speak in class than my peers were, knowing that won’t magically make my classroom discussions livelier. It will always be easier to change my pedagogy than to remake an entire generation’s upbringing.

To generate ideas for what changes to make, I turned of course to social media, where my question was met with a lively and instructive discussion. I heard from current colleagues, old friends who teach far away, even former students who are now college teachers (and some who aren’t teachers but who chimed in on what they found helpful about discussions). Later, I moderated a conversation among faculty at King’s about this question. The result of all of this was a raft of ideas, drawn from decades of collective wisdom. Here are some of the ideas people shared in these forums:

  • There are lots of good reasons to hold discussions in class. Discussions help students think and talk through ideas. They foster the idea that scholarship is a conversation. Through discussions, an instructor gets a real-time view of what students are learning and can guide students toward better understanding.
  • What counts as “discussion” may vary by discipline. Faculty in the humanities (like me) may think that discussion looks like a large-group conversation, with the instructor moderating. A science faculty member said that if he asks direct questions in class and students raise their hands and give the right answer, then that’s a successful discussion.
  • It’s OK to cold-call students, especially if you give them notice that you might do so and you give them the opportunity to pass sometimes. One way to do this is to warn students that you’ll just call on them in sequence, around the circle or up and down the rows, so they can have time to formulate ideas to share when it’s their turn.
  • If kids really are attached to their gizmos, then let them hold a discussion via gizmo. A middle-school teacher friend suggested Chatzy as a free, simple way to host online conversations via mobile devices.
  • Small-group work is of course a tried-and-true means of getting students to talk in class. One down side is that you can’t monitor every conversation, leaving the door open for conversations to head in the wrong direction. To keep conversations on track, you might assign every group a task with a specific outcome and give every member of the group a role (lead writer, fact-checker, devil’s advocate, etc.).
  • Ending class with a “minute paper” can cement the day’s learning, provide an opportunity for quieter students to let you know what they’re thinking, and set the stage for the next class meeting’s discussion.
  • Because human beings fear being lone voices in a silent crowd, the best way to foster discussion may be to build up the sense of community in class.

This last approach is the one I tried in my class. First I distributed a survey to all students, asking them what forms of fostering discussion they would be comfortable with and what obstacles there were to them participating more fully in discussion. Because several students said they would be willing to meet in small groups outside of class to discuss course material, I set up those meetings.

The most often cited obstacle to discussion was fear of “saying the wrong thing.” Several students said they felt like they didn’t know enough theology to say anything. (Well, of course, I thought, that’s why you’re taking the class!) To address this fear, I decided to do two things. First, consistently send the message that it’s OK to make mistakes like “saying the wrong thing.” In fact, making mistakes is a necessary part of the learning process.

Second, in order to make the classroom feel like a space where it’s OK to make the mistakes that learning requires, I spent a full week of class time meeting with students in pairs, in the classroom, just to talk about anything. If this seems like a “waste” of class time, I ask you to consider how much class time I might have wasted in unproductive, painful silence over the rest of the semester if I hadn’t tried to foster a better learning community.

From these conversations, I learned a lot about my students, including that most of them chose to come to King’s because they would be known by their classmates and professors and could have a voice in their classes. Several said they learn a lot by tracking discussions among their classmates. On some level, the students really want to participate actively in classroom conversation, but, as they said on the survey, there are obstacles.

So did these conversations make a difference? Maybe. This week’s discussion was a lot closer to the ideal I have for discussion. Participation was broader. Students responded directly to each other. I could hear students learning. There was more side chatter in class (which I don’t see as a bad thing, even if the chatter isn’t on topic). I hesitate to declare the experiment a success yet, because things could still shift after spring break. But I’m much more optimistic now.

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